For quite a long time now, we precariously situated students and faculty in CUNY have been practicing the art of what Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls “poor theory”— “maximizing the possibilities inherent in the minimum… being extremely creative and experimental in order to survive.” Unable to isolate ourselves within the velvety quicksand of armchairs and seminar table solipsism, we have instead pursued a kind of crowd scholarship that jettisons “interest” for “involvement.” Discussions among crowds of people—in and out of assemblies, street marches, virtual forums, shared meals, space-transformations, and yes, even jail stints—have assembled critical lessons and experiences not yet valued by scholastic frameworks of singularly rendered knowledge. Thousands have co-authored this document itself.
We are engaged in a process of defending our educational and social futures from a threadbare past and present. US student debt has surpassed $1 trillion—a third of this debt is held by graduate students. Crippling tuition increases and education cuts in some cases triple tuition and erase whole departments. Meanwhile, our campuses become increasingly militarized. As recently spotlighted in UC-Davis and CUNY’s Baruch and Brooklyn Colleges, administrators unabashedly welcome the surveillance, intimidation, and brutal arrests of students and faculty who peacefully dissent. But after our pulses shudder from being followed by armed officers, after our indignation roils from reading lies that presidents and chancellors print about our political acts, and after our bruised bodies heal from being treated like enemy combatants on our own campuses, we gather in crowds again because we have no other choice.In spite of these grim circumstances, we’re also witnessing and creating major explosions of resistance through education movements across the world—Quebec, Chile, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Spain, England, California, and around CUNY. Suppression of dissent is being met in resourceful ways. These struggles have demonstrated the power of creative action to mobilize millions—including street theater, public visual art, alternative models and sites of education, music, viral performance videos, and more. For activists in NYC, a few significant developments have arisen out of our own work—to conceive of education itself as a potential form of direct action, to rethink how we approach the call to strike, and to focus more acutely on dialectically connecting student/faculty work with wider community efforts at social change.
In the City University of New York and around the metropolis more broadly, our experiences in the Occupy movement taught us decades of lessons in a matter of months. As Tidal readers know, many CUNY folks were an active part of Occupy Wall Street, helping to maintain a multitude of working groups during the swift upsurge in city-wide radicalization. We facilitated thousands-strong public conversations and direct action trainings, built the People’s Library, and connected a global art and design community through Occuprint. At the CUNY Graduate Center, we began to hold regular general assemblies using the OWS model of direct participatory democracy. We claimed campus spaces that had otherwise not been used for political discourse (such as the recent week-long “Transforming Assembly” interactive exhibition at the James Gallery), and encouraged deeper undergrad students/grad students/faculty collaboration (including multiple open letter campaigns).
And yet, after the White House-directed nationwide eviction of Occupy encampments this winter, the movement’s future was by no means foreseeable. Furthermore, when the May Day general strike call came out, a serious schism arose in activist circles in NYC and around the United States about whether to frame our efforts as a general strike when we knew that this was an actual impossibility. We queried whether this political action term could be used more as an act of prescriptive manifestation, rather than of descriptive demonstration. Students and faculty in the CUNY movement decided to build for the day with affinity for the language of striking, but not going to such lengths as setting up picket lines at our schools. We considered more fruitful ways to engage in a strike action that wriggled out of the negation-driven rhetoric that dominated initial May Day calls. “No/stop/don’t/shut down” left very limited visions of what the day would actually look like. We recognized that Occupy’s spring coming out party couldn’t be simply a long laundry list of what we opposed.
In early 2012, several graduate students wrote a short piece entitled “Five Theses on the Student Strike” in Occupy Wall Street’s Tidal journal, which set useful initial terms of the kind of affirmational, go-power, strike-as-on-switch tactics and political vision we wanted to create for the day. We sought to invoke the most dynamic and capacious political rhetoric to envision our specific goal of educational direct action, while using the weeks leading up to May 1 to theoretically and practically build for this, instead of standing still to debate whether the day’s actions should be called a strike or not.
By the time May Day had arrived, we had amassed a coalition of students and faculty from almost a dozen schools to produce the Free University: a “collective educational experiment” that ended up drawing almost 2000 participants in what is now delightfully considered the sleeper hit of the day’s event in NYC. We wanted to provide the best of Zuccotti Park’s legacy—unpermitted reclamation of public space, heterogeneous gatherings for radical discussion, and, what is still one of the best organizing tools out there, free food. The big secret is that around forty people coordinated this event within about a month. Our call for anyone to sign up to hold any kind of class or skill share was met with a deluge of exciting workshop submissions. Our call for anyone to attend meant that tuition, ID cards, costly books, security checkpoints, and many other chains tied to higher education were easily dissolved.
Educators conducted over forty workshops, classes, and collective experiences during the five hours we occupied and transformed the park. Over a dozen faculty members contractually prohibited from striking moved their entire classes off campuses and into the park in solidarity with the call to strike. Attendees shared and learned from front-lines movement experiences on occupying foreclosed housing, student organizing and debate skills, indigenous environmentalism, open access academic publishing, and anti-capitalist approaches to math and science. Collective poetry readings brushed up alongside figure drawings and collage projects. We welcomed such luminaries as Drucilla Cornell, David Harvey, Neil Smith, Ben Katchor, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Chris Hedges to join large crowds that gathered and mixed freely.
However, our ambitions mustn’t be misunderstood as creating a Free University to be a temporary utopian enclave, full stop. We promoted these outside classrooms as areas for generating rooted political content that could be catalyzed into movement activity. Indeed, at 3pm, our whole Free U campus marched to the main Union Square rally location, and then later swarmed the financial district, book shields and banners in hand. To focus on education itself as direct action suggests that we can transform public space into mobile classrooms—in public parks and community centers, as well as in street intersections, board rooms, and bridges. Future Free University initiatives can include radical think-tanks, hosting classes inside other classes, projecting our stories on various walls around the city, and performing pop-up Free U’s at annual city-wide events. We’re establishing the foundations for future attempts at dual power with such projects as People’s Boards of Education that decide and implement our own education plans while refusing those dictated from above.
Crowd scholarship of education outside walls can focus on such anti-disciplinary subjects as the compositional practice of street writing. Science lessons can observe as well as counteract neighborhood environmental devastation. Social geography can be taught through power-mapping areas of surveillance and gentrification, as well as routes for resistance. Poetry writing as a social and bodily practice can be differently imagined when we see ourselves as stanzas marching in the street, enjambing past police barricades, and breathing new life into words made collectively resonant through mic-checks. We can crowd-source syllabi in becoming students of urban revolutionary life—featuring Michel de Certeau, Jane Jacobs, Samuel Delany, and David Harvey alongside community texts and memoirs that academia has long overlooked. Harvey demonstrates the reflexive power in embracing our entire cities as universities when he says: “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”
This work must also boomerang back into the academy walls in the process of ultimately decentering university spaces as the sole, tightly guarded sites where knowledge is made and trafficked. Each conference is a space to differently occupy, establish networks, and debate living strategies. Each thesis and dissertation is an opportunity for multi-author, multi-modal scholarship to be evaluated by a committee of peers. Cross-department/cross-borough gatherings and actions can replace the vacuous insularity of academia. Our libraries can become true active repositories of 21st century movement life that is being daily archived in posts, streams, pamphlets, and feeds. Such participatory archive sources as occupycunynews.org and Interference Archive are excellent models for librarian archivists today.
Moreover, faculty nationwide will have to heed UC-Davis professor Nathan Brown’s recent challenge: “Student activists have understood the simple point that forms of action which do not pose an immediate and concrete barrier to the normal functions of the university will be ignored, deferred, and displaced. So they organize occupations and blockades. If faculty want to confront the totalitarian conduct of administrations, we will also have to organize and participate in occupations and blockades.” His jibe that faculty can organize international conferences, but not a twenty-person faculty sit-in, demonstrates how academics’ priorities will have to shift and grow, or else risk social irrelevance. I welcome our own CUNY professors to meet this challenge by considering the incredible power that mass faculty direct actions would contribute to our movement.
Occupy is at a crossroad, its development is not inevitable, we can become another mysterious blip (especially as the election season approaches), or we can do the patient and painstaking work of building a mass movement that will flourish in the face of what is an inevitable reality of further violence, crackdowns, and surveillance by the state. Academia has a role to perform in Occupy’s future, but one that employs both a step forward and a step aside. Academia must cede intellectual space for community members—the exiles of our current university systems—to raise their own critical voices while we listen and learn. And academia must also reconcile its own demons of the past 30+ years of significant yet extremely disillusioned and defensive theoretical positions. The current international spotlight on higher education can offer us the chance to make dramatic advances towards community control of our daily lives. Now that’s the kind of education no school but ourselves can provide.
First printed in CUNY Graduate Center's The Advocate.